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Labor lawyers, with their reputation as union battlers, have become something of a dying breed as the power of unions in the American workplace has waned. “We hold ourselves out as the last of the gladiators,” said longtime labor lawyer Clifford H. Nelson Jr. of Constangy, Brooks & Smith. Attorneys have gravitated instead toward employment law, where the focus is individual employee-employer relations. But Nelson and other veteran Atlanta labor lawyers said the recent split in the AFL-CIO may reinvigorate the practice of traditional management-side labor law. In late July, three of the nation’s most powerful unions — the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Service Employees International Union — broke away from the AFL-CIO and formed a new coalition, Change to Win. Four other unions — Unite Here, the Laborer’s International Union, the United Farm Workers and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America — also joined the new group. Change to Win leaders said at the time that they formed the coalition because the AFL-CIO had lost its focus on grass-roots organizing. Less than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, far lower than the one-third membership when the AFL-CIO formed 50 years ago in the unions’ heyday. Nelson, who heads the 40-lawyer labor practice at Constangy, said he expects increased union organizing in the short term, but that it will take three to five years to know if the new coalition is a long-term threat. “The vitality and success of the union movement as a continued part of the economy largely depends on the success of this new coalition,” he added. “We’re really at a precipice here.” Nelson explained that the departure of the Teamsters, food workers and service employees from the AFL-CIO frees up about $100 million for the new group to use on organizing. He and other lawyers pointed out that the schism could prompt AFL-CIO members to increase their organizing efforts as well. OPPORTUNITIES FOR LABOR LAWYERS This means opportunity for labor lawyers — who say Atlanta has one of the highest concentrations of labor and employment practitioners in the nation. Nelson said he expects more organizing in the warehousing, distribution, food processing, grocery, retail and health care sectors because those are the industries represented by the Teamsters, food workers and service employees unions. He called the service employees union the elephant in the room because people on the management side don’t like to talk about how effective it is. He said the union won 75 percent of its elections before the National Labor Relations Board last year, compared with a typical union win rate of slightly less than 50 percent. The NLRB elections are a procedure by which employees vote whether to have union representation. The NLRB has seen no increase in election petitions since the split, said spokeswoman Patricia Gilbert. But, she said, it’s probably too early. “If they’re organizing, they need some time to get the signatures of employees and make the filing,” she said. Unions must collect signatures from at least 30 percent of employees in a work unit to petition the NLRB to hold an election. But they typically get signatures from 65 to 70 percent of workers before attempting an election, Nelson said. D. Gerald Coker said he already is starting to see an impact on business from the launch of Change to Win. “Companies that have not worried about unionization efforts for a long time are worried about their state of preparedness,” said Coker, one of the founders of Ford & Harrison. “Folks are asking us to update and review [employment] policies, wage and benefit programs, and educate management team members on what they can lawfully do and say,” said Coker. An increase in union organizing means more NLRB election drives — and more unfair labor practice charges, said Coker. “The two go hand in hand,” he said. Coker, like other labor lawyers, also foresees an increase in what are called corporate campaigns, where unions try to deal directly with a targeted employer to unionize their labor force instead of going through the NLRB. An increase in corporate campaigns can have a big impact on business for labor lawyers, Coker said, likening them to “long-term guerilla warfare.” He’s seen some that have lasted several years, he said.

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